Remarks at "On Our Own Ground: Mapping Indigeneity within the Academy"

President Lawrence H. Summers

Barker Center, Cambridge, Mass.

September 17, 2004

Thanks very much, Werner. I think my task here is to welcome everyone to what I think is an important conference on an important set of subjects. You all will know more about the history of Harvard's relations with the Native American community than do I, but I do know enough to know that in the University's founding documents, it refers to the fact that among other things, Harvard will be an Indian school. And that just a hundred yards, if that, from my office is a plaque on what is today Matthews Hall celebrating what was the first brick building that was used to educate Indian students some 300 years ago.

It is probably fair to say that if America's relations with the Native American community have over the past several centuries been, shall we say, vexed, Harvard's relations have not been entirely without contention either. We have surely over the years had sins of discrimination. But I suspect that more of our sins have probably been of omission, and of neglect, than of commission, with respect to the Native American community. We have, over the last nearly 15 years from now, had a Native American program at the University, which studies issues relating to Native American communities—and probably even more significantly, provides a vehicle for the recruitment of more than a hundred Native American students who are engaged in a range of degree programs in every school of the University. This is, I believe, part of what I think needs to be a profoundly important activity for our country.


You know, one of the professors at our public health school compiled a few years ago a set of data on the life expectancy in every country, every geographic area, in the United States. And what he found is something that you would have known he would find it qualitatively but I, at least, was astounded quantitatively, by what he found. He found that there was a Native American community in South Dakota where life expectancy was half—half—of what it was in the highest life expectancy community in our country. That life expectancy in that community was a decade, if not actually two decades, lower than life expectancy in Bangladesh. And that is not as it should be in the United States. If one looks at the persistence of poverty in our country, one finds in looking—and this is the kind of thing that we economists have now studied in a fair amount of detail—that you can look at the poverty population and they're basically, you can divide it into two broad categories.

A first category is what I would call transient poverty. A person loses their job, there's a divorce, a mother with children is without jobs and not on welfare, and is caught in poverty. And if you look at the vast majority of the people who are poor right now [UNINTELLIGIBLE], more accurately if you look at the vast majority of people who for the first time showed up as under the poverty line this year, the substantial majority of them will not be poor two years from now. And then there is a rather different set of people who are in poverty, who are in poverty this year, and who are in poverty the next year, and who are in the poverty the year after, and basically are in poverty a large fraction of the time. And that poverty is obviously the far more serious poverty from a social point of view and all of the evidence suggests that poverty in the Native American community is substantially more of that long-term concentrated variety than poverty in other communities. And that too suggests this as a major area of concern.

When I was at the Treasury Department, we worked hard and, I think, with some success on the issue of capital access for Native American communities. It is the fact that it is far easier to borrow money to add a thirty-five foot by thirty-five foot den to your house in Lexington than it is to build a bedroom so that children will have to sleep less than four kids to a bedroom in a Native American area of New Mexico. And that too is not as it should be. We made, I believe, some progress in making capital more available and encouraging financial institutions to provide more capital in these areas and actually some institutions found that while they basically didn't particularly appreciate the advice from the government on their lending priorities and they didn't particularly appreciate this kind of political pressure, that after a couple of years they were actually forced to admit that these had actually turned into profitable businesses that they would not have found on their own. I use that as an example not because it's most important, I suspect it isn't, but because it is one kind of public activity that can make a difference.

But it seems to me that the really profound question, the question that I hope your dialogues will illuminate, and the question that I think will be determining of how one sees these issues, not three years from now, not ten years from now, but fifty years from now, is how one finds a way of defining both identity and assimilation. How does one on the one hand respond to what is a strongly felt pride and identity in Native American communities that leads Native American communities to want to congregate, to want to self-govern, to want, in many points in many times, to be an island in the ocean of our society; and at the same time, how does one avoid what I don't think is good for anybody, which is a sense of dependency on the larger society, a reliance on financial transfers from the outside, a view in terms of special programs that have an aspect of charity and response to charity. How do we define this balance in a way that is healthy on both sides? I don't know the answer. I don't even have confidence that I've posed the question in the right way. Because it is both a question of what happens consciously and through plan, and it is also a question of what happens inadvertently.

You know, there are people in this room who know infinitely more about this than I, but I had occasion some time ago to read a little about the demographic history of the United States in terms of the relative sizes of the European immigrant population and the Native American population and what happened to the Native American population. It doesn't, it's not the kind of stuff that tends to find its way into the hooray-for-America-style history books. But what actually comes out if you study it, and I think this is relatively established fact, is that for everyone who was killed or maimed in some attack by European-descended Americans on the Native American population, for every conscious death that came in war, ten were a consequence of the diseases that came to North America with the European immigrants. There are fragmentary accounts of a kind of early biological warfare. You know, let's wrap a blanket around somebody who has smallpox and then encourage some other people to use that blanket. But the vast majority of the suffering that was visited on the Native American population as the Europeans came was not a plan or an attack, it was in many ways a coincidence that was a consequence of that assimilation. Nobody's plan. But that coincidence caused an enormous amount of suffering. And it speaks to the tremendous importance of us all reflecting on what we do consciously and of what are the innocent by-products—or the non-innocent by-products—of the policies that we pursue in our country on everything from questions of welfare to questions of federalism to questions of how highways are built to questions of how we preserve the environment. Because they all have very important implications for all our people.

I don't know the answers, and I doubt that we will ever know the answers with complete conviction, but I do know that I am very grateful to Werner Sollors, very grateful to all of his colleagues who have been involved in organizing this conference because it seems to me that a University with our traditions, a University with a commitment to our values, has an obligation to promote discussion on the vital issues that today's vexed relationships with the Native American community pose.

Thank you very much for providing me with this opportunity, Werner.

Recommended Articles